Every so often a piece of theatre comes along that seems torn from the life of its audience. This is theatre with the blood still on it, theatre that matters, because it brings into focus issues and fears and images that usually churn inchoately in people’s minds. Clout, the new play by David Young now playing at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, has this kind of urgency. It takes the form of an extravagant quarrel between two archetypal figures of the current age. One is a pompous right-wing newspaper magnate called Lionel K. Biggar (R. H. Thomson). He appears wearing an old-fashioned frock coat and towering bicorne, in tribute to his hero, Admiral Nelson. (Any resemblance between this figure and a living person is disclaimed in the program notes, but theatregoers will inevitably think of media baron Conrad Black.) Biggar is addressing the annual meeting of his stockholders—represented by the audience—when he’s rudely interrupted by someone shouting from the floor.
This is Trent (Eric Peterson), a disaffected left-wing journalist who has just escaped from a cancer ward, as witness his tatty bathrobe and hospital gown, and the few sad wisps of hair sprouting
from his pate. Before long, the two are insulting each other, dragging up all the old slogans people at opposite ends of the political spectrum like to sling around. “Life is about winning,” Biggar proclaims. “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.” But their hilarious encounter takes a new twist when, after vanishing in a sudden blackout, they reappear chained together in a dungeon.
Young’s satire of the co-dependency of leftand right-wingers has just found its most brilliant vehicle. When Trent scratches his crotch, Biggar’s manacled hand flaps along. When Biggar crawls to a bucket to drink, Trent gets dragged behind. They may disagree about everything from feminism to the environment, but these guys need each other like Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
It turns out they’ve been kidnapped by a self-styled eco-terrorist called Eve (Waneta Storms), who is determined to let them assail each other with the instruments of torture she carries around in a black bag—which leads to some blackly comic scenes with whips and pliers. Later, this shape-shifting woman
transforms herself into Renée, once loved by both Trent and Biggar. And so a good deal of their old college rivalry gets replayed, as Young explores the idea that much political posturing has its roots in private neurosis and failure. Gradually, we learn the I truth about Trent, the I play’s most developed 1 character. This self-styled champion of ordinary humanity is also a schmuck who once abandoned the pregnant Renée. He’s being repaid in spades, though: his captor, Eve, is actually Renées daughter.
Thomson inflases the posturing Biggar with such gusto and sturdy integrity that he becomes positively likable. And Peterson’s marvellous body language— all shrugs and shifts and sudden, clumsy outbursts—conveys Trent’s uncomfortable inner marriage between idealism and hypocrisy. To see these two enemies flail each other, or break into a bit of softshoe funny business, is also to watch two superb actors in perfect dialogue.
A provocative new drama deconstructs political polarization
Clout—which will play at Toronto’s Factory Theatre from Feb. 17 to March 25—is not always convincing. By overemphasizing the neurotic roots of politics, Young seems to discount the possibility of a useful discussion of issues. Yet the play’s phantasmagoric entwining of the personal and political shows how we can’t escape politics: we are political animals whose genius for deal-making touches everything from sex to economics. The drama sounds a note of hope here. Near the end, Trent glimpses some new truth “just outside the frame of my thinking.” Clout doesn't say what that truth is, but perhaps it’s some new mode of political exchange, beyond the sterile haranguing of left and right. By so brilliantly demonstrating the need for such an advance, Clout—staged with unflagging inventiveness by director Richard Rose— makes for theatre that really counts.
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